As a 19-year-old, Barack Obama had two of his poems published in the spring 1981 edition of Occidental College’s literary magazine, Feast.
One was a silly poem called “Underground” about “apes that eat figs” in underwater grottoes. A friendly critic has described it as a “vivid if obscurely symbolic description of a tribe of submarine primates.”
Although arguably the best poem about submarine primates ever written, Obama’s literary acolytes have largely – and charitably – chosen not to notice.
It is the second poem, “Pop,” that has attracted respectable press. Poet and novelist Warwick Collins has called it “by far the more powerful and complex” of the two poems, and his is the consensus opinion.
The literary faithful who have reviewed “Pop” see in it the seeds of the literary genius that would seemingly blossom in Obama’s 1995 memoir, “Dreams From My Father.”
Those who know the limits of Obama’s talents, however, see in the poem still more evidence that Obama is not the man or the writer the faithful think him to be.
A clear-eyed review of “Pop” addresses three basic questions: who is the “Pop” of the poem, how literal is the designation “Pop,” and who actually wrote the poem, which begins as follows:
Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
About the identity of “Pop,” reviewers express little doubt. The New Yorker, for instance, unhesitatingly describes the poem as a “loving if slightly jaded portrait of Obama’s maternal grandfather,” Stanley Dunham. I could find no mainstream publication that even suggests otherwise.
This assertion, if a bit lazy, is not unreasonable. “I can still picture Gramps leaning back in his old stuffed chair after dinner,” writes Obama in “Dreams,” “sipping whiskey and cleaning his teeth with the cellophane from his cigarette pack.”
The poem ends with bittersweet reconciliation when Pop stands and asks for a hug. Writes Obama:
I see my face, framed within
Pop’s black-framed glasses
And know he’s laughing too.
Dunham did, in fact, wear black frame glasses. What he did not do, however, was go by the name “Pop.” Obama had always known him as “Gramps.”
No review that I read asked why Obama would switch names. None asked whether Dunham was his actual father despite the fact that in the poem Obama seems to be confronting “Pop” with his paternity.
The poem’s reviewers, like the obliging media who review Obama’s performance as president, measure their praise by the shovelful.
A typical assessment was that of poet Ian McMillan writing in the U.K. Guardian: “There’s a humanity in the poem, a sense of family values and shared cultural concerns that give us a hint of the Democrat to come.”
McMillan’s review reminds me why I distrust poetry almost as much as I do the people who critique it. A closer look at “Pop” suggests that it is not at all about family values – please! – and likely not even about Dunham, but about Dunham’s boozy comrade, Frank Marshall Davis.
The whiskey drinking, the smoking, the black frame glasses, the broken-in chair fit Davis, a black communist and poet, as well as they do Stanley Dunham.
“I could see Frank sitting in his overstuffed chair,” Obama remembers in “Dreams,” “a book of poetry in his lap, his reading glasses slipping down his nose.”
As to the sharing of sage advice, that description fits Davis better. “I was intrigued by old Frank,” Obama writes in “Dreams,” “with his books and whiskey breath and the hint of hard-earned knowledge behind the hooded eyes.”
Davis was an important figure in Obama’s life. Obama alludes to him on nine separate occasions in “Dreams.” It was he, not Dunham, who told “this green young man” how America would deny him his blackness.
“They’ll train you so good,” Davis tells Obama in “Dreams,” “you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that sh–.”
More to the point, “Pop” does something Davis would naturally do but that Dunham would not: he “recites an old poem.”
The first time the reader meets Davis in “Dreams” Obama refers to him as “a poet named Frank.” Writes Obama, “[Davis] would read us his poetry whenever we stopped by his house, sharing whiskey with Gramps out of an emptied jelly jar.”
There is one more image in “Pop,” a disturbing one, that suggests Davis as the poem’s subject.
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
In his 1968 quasi-memoir, “Sex Rebel: Black,” Davis concedes that “under certain circumstances I am bisexual” as well as “a voyeur and an exhibitionist.”
If there is an innocent explanation for the “amber stain” on the shorts of both mentor and initiate, reviewers have declined to explore it.
Then, too, there is enough mystery about Obama’s birth that a serious reviewer has to ask about Davis, as he would about Dunham, why Obama calls him “Pop.” In the more calculated “Dreams,” Obama never applies that word to Davis.
Finally, there is the question of authorship. McMillan writes of the 19-year-old Obama, “He’s obviously read the Beat poets and writers like Gary Snyder and Charles Bukowski.”
Obviously? Obama, an indifferent student and doper at the time, has given us no evidence of an interest in anything besides “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy.”
Two years later, when next appearing in print in the pages of Columbia’s weekly news magazine, Sundial, Obama was writing semi-literate clunkers like, “The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are at the root of the problem, keep SAM’s energies alive.”
A more likely muse is Davis himself. A correspondent, who has helped before with the literary analysis of Obama’s work, reviewed Davis’ “47th Street Poems” and “Livin’ the Blues” memoir and concluded that “Pop” has “the same cadence and style as many of [Davis’] poems.”
Although “Pop” says nothing conclusive about paternity, it may well suggest a pattern that would culminate in “Dreams From My Father”: Obama’s willingness to take full credit for something he could not himself write.